It has not been the senior season University of Miami guard Krystal Saunders envisioned, and the past five months certainly have tested her mettle.
Saunders’ troubles began before the season started. In July, she was involved in a serious car accident while riding with three teammates to visit her mother’s Broward home in West Park. Saunders sustained a concussion and injuries to her neck and back.
She missed some summer practice but recovered in time for the first game. Then, on the night of Nov. 30, there was more bad news. The Hurricanes had just beaten Missouri 74-68 that afternoon, and Saunders was in a great mood and all dolled up at her cousin’s Sweet 16 party when her mother, Kala Williams, received a phone call.
Williams’ West Park house had burned down because of an electrical fire. She had insurance, but almost all the family’s possessions were lost. Saunders, a former South Broward High star, lost all her trophies and medals.
“I rushed after the game to curl my hair and get to the party, and they had just crowned my cousin when I got there,” Saunders said. “Thirty minutes later, my mom got a call that the house was on fire. We were all like, ‘Whaaat?’ My mom and stepdad left immediately, and then she called and said, ‘It’s burnt, everything’s gone.’ It was sad. I tried to keep my tears in but I could hear my mom’s voice on the phone, and I’m emotional, so I definitely cried.”
Saunders was shocked when she got to the house and saw the busted windows, charred remains, fire trucks and water everywhere.
She considers it a miracle that her most prized athletic possession — her Atlantic Coast Conference championship ring from her freshman year — was spared.
“I lost all my trophies, but my stepdad found my ACC ring,” Saunders said. “I thought I lost that. My mom was like, ‘Oh no, that ring was in the house.’ It hurt her bad because she knew how much it meant to me. The next day, she sent me a picture of it, and she cried.
“My stepdad moved some burnt stuff and it was sitting there right in the box. I teared up. My mom lost all her clothes and her wedding album and other important things, so it’s been tough.”
Through it all, Saunders has never asked for pity.
“She’s really trying to shelf it, put the team first, put her leadership responsibilities ahead of everything else, and she’s really been strong,” UM coach Katie Meier said. “She doesn’t want to talk about it or want attention for it. You can see her eyes well up and you know it’s bothering her, but she’s trying to be strong for her mom, her family and her team.”
Saunders said the support she received from the UM staff and teammates has been overwhelming.
“When you have coaches, teammates, and staff that care so much about you, you don’t have a bad day,” she said. “Even though I have these outside problems, when I come to the court and I see my teammates who make me so happy, see my coaches who inspire me, I just leave those problems out there.
“This is where I erase everything and just play.”
She said her teammates’ words of encouragement helped her keep things in perspective.
“They kept telling me to keep my head up, that it’s only material things,” she said. “Nobody’s hurt, that’s a blessing. Suriya McGuire, one of my best friends, told me, ‘Play for your mom.’ Michelle Woods said, ‘I know your mom has no clothes, she can have all my Miami gear.’
“That made me smile. Just to have that around me was great.”
Williams is picking up the pieces and recently moved into a new home west of where they lived before. Saunders, a Sports Administration major due to graduate in May, is focused on her studies and basketball. The Hurricanes (6-3) play at Arizona State (9-1) Saturday afternoon. Saunders averages 8.7 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Neither is a team best, but her on-court smarts are her biggest contribution.
Unlike years past, this UM team does not have any star players.
It is Saunders’ job as a co-captain to get the Hurricanes to believe in each other.
“There’s no All-American on this team, nobody who’s going to score 30, so all our skills have to come together as one,” she said. “I try to always encourage my teammates, remind them to be humble and be hungry.”
• UM is accepting donations for Saunders’ family. Checks can be made out to Kala Williams and must be delivered to women’s basketball director of operations Lonnette Hall.
Checks can be sent to Hall at 1245 Dauer Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33146 or may be delivered to an athletics staff member at a women’s basketball game on Dec. 28, Dec. 29 or Jan. 1.